How do you get the ‘noob’ into playing an RTS game? Most folk I try to persuade - face all full of innocence and voice inflected with re-assuring tones - into playing me in a ‘little’ game of AoE or C&C take a look at all the things to do and the bulging interface and inquire whether or not I would prefer a game of UT2003. Which I proceed to humiliate them in. Then they give the RTS title a try, get stumped, get whipped, and go off to sulk and play solitaire. Which is annoying because I really love the thrills of RTS games and much prefer the combination of reflexes and brainpower to the twitch play of FPS games. My flatmates have now come around though, and a C&C Generals match or five is now a daily event. And for at least two for them it was Impossible Creatures which eased them into the concepts of the RTS game.
Impossible Creatures is the product of the Relic development studios, the same company which brought us the sublime and groundbreaking Homeworld back in 1999. It seemed that they intended to do another groundbreaking game when they announced the development of Sigma, as Impossible Creatures was originally known. They were promising a new RTS experience, one where the player made up the units according to their needs and tastes. Although a few games had offered this feature before, most notably the fantastic Warzone 2100, also from 1999, but the big deal with Sigma was that as opposed to controlling tanks or wee space mannies, it would be the genetic splicing of animals that would form the basis of unit creation. Now again, a similar game also offered this possibility, the somewhat risible Evolva. Oops, sounds like Relic are covering familiar ground here. But they have still managed to provide a product that, if not unique, is certainly cut from a different cloth. Yes, we have the first beginners RTS title.
Now other games have been simplified to take the RTS genre into the paying homes of those who would not normally consider the prospect. But this ain't no Lego Rock Raiders, this is a seriously designed game, well coded, with great art and competent sounds. It’s also fun to play. For a few days.
Things start well. The menu screens are well done and nice to look at. There’s a single player campaign of fifteen mission, skirmish options and the usual multiplayer online/LAN options. There’s a very good tutorial which shies away from only telling you what your hand looks like and how to make it move from lap to mouse.
Then there’s the Army Builder screen. This is where you will spend a lot of time, honing your animals for multiplayer. From a selection of 50 creatures you pick one beast as your base and then another animal to splice into the first. There are five different body parts that can be swapped from one creature to the other, from tails, front and back legs, bodies to heads. Animals can fly, swim and walk, and combinations of flying bulls or walking sharks are the very things the designers seem to want you to choose. It is a lot of fun and easy to use, with any bonuses or negatives attributes from your mad-scientist experimentations being clearly displayed, along with a fully viewable model of the abomination that you are creating. It’s just a damn shame that all this work becomes rather academical when you take your menagerie onto the battlefield.
You see the big problem IC multiplayer games have is that all your animals still conform rigidly to the whole rock, paper, stones formula. You will need to have some artillery for ranged attacks, requiring things such as rock hurling chimps or spitting archer fish components in your beasts. Then you will need some brawlers, so get a great white onto a bull’s body or an alligator onto a cheetah. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. All of the fun of building your uber monster is taken away by the fact that Relic have done nothing to come up with a new take on how RTS units fight one another. The vast numbers of combinations mean it can also become bloody hard to know what little fluffy beast does what, leading to frustration and selecting everything on screen and sending them off towards the enemy base in a single attack.
The online interface is superb, games are easy to join and there is a full statistical database held on all players and games. Which means you can quickly find out what the most popular units are and construct your army accordingly. Which is precisely what happens and makes a mockery of the whole idea of having so many potential units to choose from. Oh well.
These are problems which isn’t doesn’t seem the long development time helped to overcome. Which is a shame as the rest of the package is superbly done.
The single player game doesn’t suffer from the same problems as the multiplayer, except for one biggie which I shall come to later. The basic story behind the campaign is entertaining and has a very pulp fiction/Saturday serials feel to it. It all centres on the activities of a mad scientist, his nefarious sponsor, a beautiful and brilliant assistant and you, the plucky and heroic adventurer determined to come to the bottom of the mystery. It is well presented with some fine voice acting and does a better than average job of holding the missions together and making a coherent campaign.
The whole interface is nicely done and comes with ample tool tips to make sure that you never get lost. The graphics are solid and colourful without being too cartoony. There are some nice locations to fight over and some pleasant effects to bring you into the game world. The creatures themselves are a sight to behold, and the zoom able camera allows you to have a good gander at the new products of your animal labs. The first time you see a flying gorilla you will laugh – humour is one of this games strong points, and is all the better for so much of it being incidental in nature. Playing this game is very easy to do, and even if the idea of having so many creatures to create might seem daunting, the game enforces a limit of nine creatures on any one map which helps keep any confusion levels as low as can be hoped for.
There isn’t much in the way of improvements to be built either. Of course your animals can be toughened up, but this only affects their numerical abilities and gives you nothing new to play with. And then there’s the fact that you can only research seven new things to affect your builders and bases. Which can be done in a matter of minutes. Which leaves not much else to do apart from fight. Now while this was an intention of the developers, especially in wanting multiplayer games to be short affairs, it saps much of the enjoyment to be had in building up a strong economy and unstoppable army. And it is the second big problem I have with the game. I quickly bored of the single player missions as there isn’t much variety to be had and the multiplayer game left me feeling kind of hollow for the afore-mentioned reasons.
Which is a shame as the game is so well built that it cries out to be heaped with attention. In my opinion Relic wanted to get this thing finished so they could concentrate on the impending Homeworld 2 and therefore left the gameplay mechanics incongruously simple in light of the possibly mind-bending qualities of the unit creation process. This in my opinion makes it a great game for the RTS novice. It includes all the staples of the genre such as base building, resource collection and army construction while stripping away the many layers of depth that can make game such as Warcraft and C&C seem so initially daunting. For those of us well steeped in the ethos of the genre it is a well made and very pretty game whose promises of a new experience don’t deliver in quite the manner we would hope for. But as a game to be given to those who we one day hope to dominate in one of our favourite RTS games, it’s a wise choice.